So let’s assume you’re a young man who’d like to attract a partner. What would you have to do to make yourself appealing? I guess you’d probably opt for personal grooming and fancy clothes and jewellery to enhance yourself, then you’d add an accessory like a smart car and you’d flash your credit card around. Unless you’re really ugly and arrogant you’d probably catch the eye of some eligible female pretty quickly. This sort of mating behaviour isn’t peculiar to homo-sapiens – birds have to do it as well in order to attract a mate. Obviously they don’t have the same tools as humans, but they do have to be quite well equipped to prove their capabilities of providing for the needs of a mate.
Most male birds have lovely plumage to make themselves attractive to the rather dowdy females of the species. They often have beautiful long tail feathers or are brightly coloured, like the Southern ground hornbill. Sometimes they even have their legs adorned with jewellery! This hornbill is quite a heavy bird that looks rather like a turkey, with a gorgeous red face and a red inflatable throat. It uses a deep booming call to advertise its territory and then struts around gathering food to show that it’s a good hunter.
It’s always exciting for us to come across Southern ground hornbills in a game reserve. They are not often found outside protected areas and are listed as vulnerable in southern Africa, so we feel quite privileged when we see them. They’re usually found in pairs or in groups of up to five birds and because they spend their time foraging, it’s not uncommon to see them with loads of food in their beaks. This must make them very appealing to the opposite sex – what mate wouldn’t like to be presented with a number of crickets, frogs and a snake to snack on or to feed her young with.
Good providers they may be, but when it comes to feeding babies, they don’t measure up at all. They usually have two little ones and the firstborn, being stronger, is fed all the food. The second young one usually dies of starvation within a few days. Perhaps this is why there are so few of them around.
They are excellent foragers and spend their time gathering insects and small reptiles and mammals, often co-operating with each other in the quest for food. Once they find it, they keep adding more to the collection, often putting the food down on the ground and then gathering it up again until they have full beaks.
Look out for them next time you’re in a national park – and check out what they’re having for dinner!